Reflections on Write by the Lake: Lessons Learned for Science Writers

This week I attended the Write by the Lake Retreat at UW-Madison, and I will be genuinely sad to see it end. The magic in the nonfiction session led by Amy Lou Jenkins has been incredible.

I want to share a few of the writing tips I have picked up from this week, even though this wasn’t a “science writing” workshop. What I have found as a writer is that what I work to improve in one type of writing ends up improving every other type of writing that I do. I have heard so many scientific writers claim that science writing is different from all other types of writing. Not necessarily.

So what are some of the things that I picked up at this workshop that I think can easily apply to scientific writing?

  1. Read what you want to write. If you want to get your paper accepted into a particular peer-reviewed journal, read that journal. How long are the research reports? Is discussion typically included with results? Are methods in a separate section or mostly part of figure legends? Are articles written in active voice? Are they written from a more personal or impersonal view point?
  2. Read things outside of your chosen “genre”. If you want to add fresh perspective to your experimental design or come up with the new questions for your discussion, maybe you should be reading things outside your field. How do scientists in other fields ask questions or design controls?
  3. Know your market. If you are writing a grant proposal, make sure what you write matches the call for submissions.
  4. Read and follow the directions, whether you are writing a journal article or a grant proposal. Yes, journals and funding agencies get phenomenal numbers of submissions, but significant numbers of those submissions are automatically discarded because the authors did not read and follow directions. Do yourself a favor. Land in the pile that doesn’t get automatically discarded.
  5. The magic often happens in the part where you are struggling. Those results that don’t make sense? That part of the discussion that just doesn’t seem to come together? Work on that. That is where the magic is. That is where you will have some opportunity to make your writing (and your work) fresh. Research papers need not be boring reading.
  6. Take a writing workshop that doesn’t appear to have any application to the writing you do for a living. Every time I have studied writing in the “wrong” genre, I have come out with something I can take back to my science writing, and my science writing gets better.
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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

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